Zelenskyy is Putin’s golden opportunity to realize his goals in Ukraine – Andrei Illarionov
Article by: Kateryna Shumylo
Russian economist and former adviser to the Russian President, Andrei Illarionov explains why President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should not agree to peace in the Donbas on Putin’s terms and how this scenario might end for Ukraine.
– Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced a certain détente between Ukraine and Russia. Many Ukrainians associate this warming with Zelenskyy’s rhetoric, which is radically different from Poroshenko’s – it’s softer, quieter, and Zelenskyy tries not to offend Putin. Is this so?
-Of course, Zelenskyy has his own rhetoric, but so does the newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs (during the interview it was not yet known that the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Vadim Prystaiko didn’t actually recognize the “Steinmeier Formula”and ruled out the possibility of amending the Constitution of Ukraine-Ed) and the new government as a whole. However, it’s not only about rhetoric, but also about actions.
First came the prisoner exchange. Zelenskyy also ordered Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the demarcation line, and commanded the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska to be restored. On the whole, Zelenskyy’s approach with respect to Putin and Russia is fundamentally different from Poroshenko’s. Not only does the Ukrainian side now talk about “détente” with Russia, but Putin himself states “that we are not two different nations – that we are two parts of one nation” (“нет двух разных народов – что есть две части одного народа”).
In fact, Putin sees this “warming” as a historic chance to implement the program that he’s reiterated since 2014, namely to restore full control over Ukraine. He believes that Ukraine’s new leadership will provide him with an ideal opportunity to implement this program.
Therefore, believing that he understands the nature of Ukraine’s government, and having studied the personal biographies of Ukraine’s leaders, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, Putin has decided that he now has a unique opportunity to realize his goals, not only with the help of guns, artillery and tanks, but also through the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, which are extremely dangerous for Ukraine. He believes that Ukraine should implement Minsk directly – using the “Steinmeier Formula” – or some other similar strategy. And, this is exactly what Putin has been talking about for the past five and a half years!
We see that Putin is taking certain steps to achieve these goals. Of course, these are very rational steps, calculated so as not to lose anything, not to retreat anywhere, and not to yield anything. Not only has the President of Ukraine responded, but Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s aide, has also stated that Russia wants the “Steinmeier Formula” be signed within the framework of the Normandy Talks, which means surrendering Ukraine’s territorial integrity by modifying the Constitution of Ukraine.
– But, Leonid Kuchma said that in no case should the Constitution be modified…
– Leonid Kuchma is a respected person, but he’s a former president. Although he plays an important role in the negotiation process, the executive branch, represented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President, adheres to another position… Moreover, we don’t know at what level these negotiations are being held, and to what extent this reflects Ukraine’s position. But it’s hard for me to imagine that Ushakov brought up the “Steinmeier Formula”, which they’re now preparing to sign within the framework of the Normandy Talks, without discussing this issue first with his Ukrainian partners. I don’t know what specific process was used, but it’s clear that this topic is being discussed.
– But, there may be some secret negotiations that we know nothing about…
– Of course, we don’t know everything about these negotiations. We following the official comments, and through them we try to reconstruct the ongoing negotiations.
I’ll say it again…based on how quickly Ushakov responded to comments by Zelenskyy and Prystaiko about the “Steinmeier Formula”. If this formula is being prepared for signing within the framework of the Normandy Talks, it means that it has been discussed during the Ukrainian-Russian negotiations. And, this means that Ukrainian negotiators did not state unequivocally and firmly that this formula was unacceptable. If this had actually been said, then I doubt very much that Ushakov would have mentioned the “Steinmeier Formula” in public space.
– What will Ukraine get if this formula is adopted, and what will Russia get?
– Ukraine will get a ticking time bomb, because the launch of this mechanism will mean the implementation of the first and second Minsk Agreements, as a result of which two quasi-state entities (“DNR” and “LNR”-Ed) are integrated into the state body of Ukraine. These two entities will make Ukraine’s political system implode from within. They will block any attempts to bring about concrete internal developments, towards which pro-Ukrainian parties and civil society have been working so hard. Of course, they’ll block Ukraine’s movement and aspirations towards Europe, the European Union, NATO and integration into the Western world.
Moreover, as soon as the integration process begins, all political, legal and other mechanisms, which don’t allow “LNR” and DNR” militants and separatists to participate in national elections, will be eliminated. As you know, in the last parliamentary elections, Ukraine’s pro-Putin parties got 18% of the vote against the backdrop of the tremendous success achieved by Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People.
With the advent of the two ORDLO enclaves within Ukraine, the number of votes received by pro-Putin parties will increase to 35-40%. Naturally, these forces will be de facto coordinated, supported and controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, and he’ll be holding the key to Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy. He won’t have a 50% plus 1 vote, but he’ll control the decisive political bloc in the Verkhovna Rada and in Ukraine’s public space, because pro-Ukrainian parties will remain traditionally divided.
As we’ve seen from Viktor Yushchenko’s previous coexistence with Yulia Tymoshenko, there have always been conflicts between pro-Ukrainian parties. At that moment, Medvedchuk will be the only one holding the “joker” in Ukrainian politics. Since Medvedchuk is Putin’s personification, this means that the Russian President will become the chief manager of Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy. It’s so obvious, transparent and understandable that the desire of the Ukrainian political elite to bury Ukraine’s integrity and sovereignty as an independent state is simply amazing.
– Do you understand why these pro-Russian parties received so much support in Ukraine despite the fact that we’re at war? Why did our people vote for them?
– This is an important issue, but it doesn’t relate to the nature of the current political system in Ukraine. If almost 20% of the population vote for pro-Putin parties in present-day Ukraine (without occupied Crimea and Donbas), then it’s easy to imagine how many people will vote for pro-Putin parties if the Donbas and Crimea or just the Donbas without Crimea are integrated into Ukraine.
Ukraine will then return to the pre-2014 political scene, when there was a major confrontation between the Orange supporters and the Blue/White partisans, when each of these political forces had almost 50% of the vote, and the results of certain elections – parliamentary or presidential – were determined almost by accident. If a slightly stronger candidate is on the Orange side, such as Viktor Yushchenko, then the Orange group will have a 2 to 3% lead over the Blue/White faction. If the Orange candidate is slightly weaker, then the Blue/White group will win.
This political split is ideal for Putin. If we’re talking about Vladimir Putin’s “concept of happiness”, then it consists in a divided Ukraine, controlled and managed by the Kremlin.
The fact is that the main achievement of the past five and a half years from the point of view of political stability in Ukraine, no matter how cynical, scary or terrible it may sound, is the significant weakening of pro-Putin forces in Ukraine’s political landscape. This was largely due to important territorial losses in the Donbas and Crimea, which must be returned to Ukraine, of course. However, as these regions have been excluded from the political process over the past five years (presidential and parliamentary elections of 2014 and 2019), the election results showed that Ukraine had the opportunity to develop both freely and independently and move gradually towards Europe and the West in economic, political, geopolitical and military fields. As soon as this configuration changes, Ukraine will return to the pre-2014 situation, to a political division splitting the country almost in half.
We must salute Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his party members, who, for the first time in 28 years of Ukrainian independence, have temporarily overcome this division. We can’t refer to the results of the 2014 presidential election, because then, during the most acute phase of the war, Ukrainians realized that they needed to elect a president in the first round. This was done. In 2019, as the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine is less acute, Ukrainians decided that it was time to cast this division aside.
However, if we remove the votes cast for Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Servant of the People Party and look at what political force got second place, then we can see that the traditional division remains. It’s still there, and the split between the Orange and Blue/White factions still exists.
It’s absolutely clear what Ukrainians want today – to promote economic growth, stop the war with the aggressor, establish the rule of law, and ensure a safe and secure environment. But, these and other critical issues must first be resolved at a preliminary stage. It’s more a question of whether Ukraine can retain a political majority to address these issues and carry out necessary reforms. As soon as the “DNR” and “LNR” are integrated into Ukraine, the political unity of the country, almost artificially achieved in 2014 and more naturally confirmed in 2019, will be destroyed, and Ukraine will return to the pre-2014 situation. This is the ideal picture that Vladimir Putin dreams of…
– Why did Putin decide to communicate directly with Zelenskyy? Does he feel that he can carry out all his ideas and plans during Zelenskyy’s term of office?
– Of course! Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a talented individual, and I believe that his intentions are sincere and his goals are noble. He really wants to end the war; he doesn’t want Ukrainians to continue dying on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Zelenskyy fails to understand that war treaties are always dictated by the winners.
It’s clear to everyone who is stronger in this conflict. The assumption that the weaker side (Ukraine) can dictate its own terms and conditions and force the stronger side (Russia) to make peace on its own terms is an illusion that has yet to be confirmed by world history… and it’s even more impossible when you’re dealing with such a calculating person as Vladimir Putin. This has never happened before, and it’s unlikely to happen very soon.
Second, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is in a hurry. He’s rushing to conclude peace, but that’s a big mistake… and I say this frankly. Wars can come to an end through other means, not just peace treaties. Some wars can end in a ceasefire without a peace treaty. Japan is one of the strongest countries in the world, but 74 years have passed since the end of World War II, and Japan still hasn’t concluded a peace treaty with the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation*. A truce was concluded, soldiers and civilians are no longer killed, but there’s no official peace treaty. Japan hasn’t recognized the annexation of the territory that it considers its own.
(*Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II because of conflicting claims over islands north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, which Japan calls its Northern Territories – and Russia refers to as the Southern Kurils. To be precise, the long-standing feud relates to three islands (Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, and Shikotan) and the rocky Habomai islets, all of which Russia seized after WWII-Ed).
Japan could be an example for Ukraine, especially with regard to its position when it cannot resolve the issue of restoring sovereignty over occupied Donbas and Crimea on its own terms.
If Ukraine believes that, by agreeing to Putin’s terms, it will be able to hold free elections with international observers and peacekeepers…this is an illusion! We shouldn’t even waste our breath considering such a scenario!